Friday, September 25, 2009

[Book Review] Eldest by Christopher Paolini

Eldest
Christopher Paolini
ISBN: 978-0-440-23849-2
Price: $7.99
999 Pages
Fantasy
Rating: 5/5
Review Date: Sept. 25, 2009



Eldest, sequel to Eragon, the second book from the Inheritance Cycle from Christopher Paolini proved to be just as highly exciting if not more so than Eragon.

Eldest opens with Ajihad’s death and the kidnapping of the Twins and Murtagh to conclude the battle with the Urgals in Farthen Dur. It’s a great victory for the Varden though tinged with grief and sadness over the loss of their great leader, Ajihad, who “appeared more calm and tranquil than he ever did in life, as if death had recognized his greatness and honored him by removing all traces of his worldly cares.” With the burial ceremony underway, the Varden’s Council of Elders appointed Nasuada, Ajihad’s young daughter, thinking that she can be easily manipulated into doing their bidding and asks Eragon to pledge his fealty to the Council in the hopes of gaining control over the Dragon Rider, making their position more powerful than it currently is. But the young girl proved to be more wise and strong when she spoke with Eragon regarding her appointment, assuring him that Ajihad’s “work will not go unfinished, even if it takes me to the grave… all of Ajihad’s plans, all his strategies and goals, they are mine now. I will not fail him by being weak.”

With all the political agendas within the Varden, Eragon surprises everyone by pledging his fealty not to the Council of Elders but to someone he deems more worthy of such loyalty. Afterwards, Eragon, Saphira, Arya and Orik leaves Farthen Dur for Tarnag, another Dwarf city where Eragon was met with open hostility so much so that they were forced to continue on with their journey towards the Elf city of Ellesmera to complete his Rider training. It is during this leg of the journey when “a tingle of awe and joy shuddered along Eragon’s spine. This was where he belonged, as a Rider. Of all the things in Alagaesia, he had been lucky enough to be joined with this. The wonder of it brought tears to his eyes and a smile of wild exultation that dispelled all his doubts and fears in a surge of pure emotion.” But with the scar the Shade, Durza, left on Eragon’s back, his training especially when doing strenuous exercises triggers the pain which he refers to as the Obliterator “because when you’re in pain, nothing else can exist. Not thought. Not emotion. Only the desire to escape the pain. When it’s strong enough, the Obliterator strips us of everything that makes us who we are, until we’re reduced to creatures less than animals, creatures with a single desire and goal: escape” and when he asked Oromis about why he must endure such torture from the pain in his back when elves can use magic to give him the skill he needs to shape his body like they do trees and plants, Oromis answered, “you would not understand how you got the body you had, your own abilities, nor how to maintain them. No shortcuts exist for the path you walk, Eragon.”

It is during his training that Eragon learns from Oromis, an elf Rider, the most important mental tool a person can possess is the “ability to reason analytically” as it can overcome any lack of wisdom when applied properly.” Further pointing out that “too many problems in this world are caused by men with noble dispositions and clouded minds” keeping in mind that “no one thinks of himself as a villain, and few make decisions they think are wrong” and that magic is not only the “manipulation of energy through the use of the ancient language,” it is also the “art of thinking, not strength of language” which “relies on having a disciplined intellect.”

With Eragon’s training progress both in magic and swordsmanship, Oromis cautions the young lad to “never grow overconfident… Never grow arrogant, for then you will be careless and your enemies will exploit your weakness” which he took to heart. He also learned to hunt and kill with magic which made him realize the truth behind the words of Rhunon, the elf smith, “when you can have anything you want by uttering a few words, the goal matters not, only the journey to it” by experiencing it for himself when he hunted rabbits for dinner using magic and suddenly it was meaningless to him despite the fact that he love to hunt simply because the thrill of the hunt is gone when one uses magic. Part of his training is meditating in the middle of the forest and it was when Eragon was about to take his first bite of the rabbits when “his thoughts turned unbidden to his meditations. He remembered his excursions into the minds of birds and squirrels and mice, how full of energy they felt and how vigorously they fought for the right to exist in the face of danger. Gripped by revulsion, Eragon thrust the meat away, as appalled by the fact that he had killed rabbits as if he had murdered two people” and thus he realized why elves don’t eat meat and resolves never to eat meat again but Saphira remains proud by saying, “I refuse to be ashamed about how I must sustain myself. Everything has its place in the world. Even a rabbit knows that.”

The pain on Eragon’s back continues to torture him from time to time and it was during the Agaeti Blodhren, a Blood-oath Celebration observed by the Elves and Dragons that Eragon receives the most wonderful gift from the Dragons which gave hope to Elves and Dwarves that finally they have a fighting chance to defeat Galbatorix once and for all. But his training has to be cut short for Eragon was needed back in Surda, where Nasuada relocated the Varden, to fight Galbatorix’s troops alongside the Varden. And in that battle, Eragon discovers a shocking secret that could ruin everything that he believed in and worked hard for.

Meanwhile, back in Carvahall, a very bitter and confused Roran whose fury was roused by the fact “that Eragon had left Garrow unburied and fled Palancar Valley abandoning his responsibilities to gallop off with the old storyteller on some harebrained journey” vowed to avenge his father’s death by searching for the Ra’zac and then search for Eragon for some answers. But it seems that he need not seek out the Ra’zac because they came back along with a troop of Galbatorix’s soldiers to take him into custody as per the king’s orders. But since Roran nor the villagers would want to give him up, both Ra’zac and soldiers attacked the villagers which in turn left them no choice but to fight back or forfeit their lives and freedom. Knowing that they’re as good as dead if they stayed, the villagers followed Roran with all that they can carry and escaped to the Spine towards Surda in the hopes of seeking out the Varden for protection against Galbatorix. Their first stop was in Narda where they discovered Roran and Eragon are most wanted by the empire, making escape and purchasing supplies more difficult. It was in Teirm that Roran managed to secure an audience with Jeod who turned out to be more than able to assist Roran in their escape and enlightens him as to Eragon’s whereabouts. Jeod and his wife, with Roran and the rest of Carvahall, escapes to Surda on Galbatorix’s Dragon Wing ship, burning “everything flammable between Teirm and the ocean.” Jeod observed, “This will harm a great many innocent people… we did what we had to. Just don’t ask me to take pleasure in the suffering we’ve caused to ensure our own safety” and not only were the soldiers alerted, the Ra’zac came flying out to attack and retrieve the ship but because of the great distance between ship and land and bright daylight, Baldor had a clear shot with his arrow and though the Ra’zac were at the extreme edge of a longbow’s range, “Baldor’s aim was true. His arrow struck the flying creature on the right flank, and the beast gave a scream of pain so great that the glass on the deck was shattered and the stones on the shore were riven in shards” giving the Ra’zac no choice but to retreat. The villagers were ecstatic with joy over their victory but Roran said, “This was no victory… because now the empire knows exactly where we are” which proved to be prophetic because not soon afterwards, the empire sent out sloops to overtake the Dragon Wing and capture the people on board and the only way to escape them is to go through the Boar’s Eye, a huge whirlpool which was proven to be deadly as no ship has ever escaped the eye unscathed and lived to tell the tale. It’s their only option with the sloops gaining on them so with perfect timing and rhythm, the captain managed to get them out and safely into Surda where Roran finally meets Eragon and Saphira.

While Eragon’s plot is about laying down the foundations for an epic fantasy, Eldest focuses on character development even as it introduces new characters and twists into the adventurous life of cousins Eragon and Roran. There isn’t much background information on new Varden leader Nasuada in Eragon, but as the story progresses in Eldest, despite being young and inexperienced, she continues to prove the strength of her will and wisdom by selling magically produced lace and though Trianna the sorceress believed it to be ridiculous to fund a war with lace, Nasuada’s ingenuity proved otherwise because mass and magically produced lace will be cheaper thus “women who otherwise could never afford to own lace will leap at the chance to buy ours. Every farmer’s wife who longs to appear richer than she is will want it. Even wealthy merchants and nobles will give us their gold because our lace will be finer than any thrown or stitched by human hands” therefore Galbatorix’s own people will provide the funds needed for the Varden to survive and wage war. King Orrin’s objections to funding a war with lace is more on the superficial because he thinks it’s not respectable and “what bard would compose an epic about our deeds and write about lace?” which Nasuada counters by saying, “we do not fight in order to have epics written in our praise” and since this answer will not be acceptable to the weaver’s guild who lost a substantial amount on the sale of their hand-stitched laces, Nasuada offers, “The Varden would be more than willing to offer you a loan in return for the kindness you’ve shown us… at a suitable rate of interest of course” which proves that she’s no fool either for lending money interest free even for a friend and ally.

Arya the elf is such a mystery that makes one wonder what she’s really all about when she vehemently objected, “I will not return to the land of my ancestors on the back of a donkey” which sounds rather arrogant as if riding a donkey is such a dishonor to her person.

Eragon’s development from being an innocent, carefree lad to being a fine swordsman and magician is a delightful experience and while we already know that he’s attracted to Arya from when he first saw her in a dream, he finally realizes what it feels like to be in love when Eragon’s and Arya’s gaze met and he felt “something lurched within him. He flushed without knowing why, feeling a sudden connection with her, a sense that she understood him better than anyone other than Saphira. His reaction confused him. For no one had affected him in that manner before” and like all men when first confronted with love, they try to escape from it hence “Eragon welcomed the chance to escape the cramped deck of the raft, where he felt awkward and unsettled with Arya so near.” And feeling “numb, Eragon sat upon a rotting log and buried his face in his hands, weeping that his affection for Arya was doomed to remain unrequited, and weeping that he had driven her further away” when he finally got the courage to tell Arya how he feels and gets turned down just pulls at our heartstrings, wanting to comfort him and tell him that it’s going to be okay. Eragon’s training not only improved his skills in magic and swordsmanship, it also granted him wisdom when confronted with the question of him resisting the order of things that animals are meant to be prey, he replies, “because we can better ourselves. Should we give in to our impulses to hurt or kill any who anger us, to take whatever we want from those who are weaker, and, in general, to disregard the feelings of others? We are made imperfect and must guard against our flaws lest they destroy us. As Oromis said, why should we cause unnecessary suffering?”

And the star-crossed lovers in Roran and Katrina is just as filled with heartache and uncertainty because Roran had nothing to offer Katrina, not even a roof over their heads and Katrina, being disowned by her over-protective father claimed she won’t even get her mother’s inheritance and it was so good of Elain and Horst to take Roran and Katrina into their home and in the place of Katrina’s parents, she sat Roran down and talked to him regarding his real intentions towards Katrina since Sloan disowned and denied Katrina her mother’s inheritance and life, being difficult enough without the added hardship of having no money or resources, Elain asks Roran, “will you care for her without grudge or resentment?” and Roran replies, “yes” which shows how much Roran loves Katrina despite the problems thrown their way. And because of the attacks on Carvahall, he no longer was a farmer or a smith, but a warrior intent on saving and keeping the ones he love safe from harm.

Oromis’ patience and wisdom in Eragon’s training pays off when Eragon finally managed to “attain a state of inner peace so profound that, during that time, he ceased to exist as an individual” that he was so attuned to the forest and its inhabitants that Oromis only then taught him how to draw energy from other sources and have him try it for himself and Eragon felt a “wave of death roll through the smaller creatures Eragon was in contact with. A line of ants keeled over motionless. A baby mouse gasped and entered the void as it lost the strength to keep its heart beating. Countless plants withered and crumbled and became inert as dust.” All these horrible deaths Oromis deemed necessary for Eragon to understand the terrible price of using energy from other sources and Eragon had to experience it for himself for “mere words cannot convey the feeling of having those whose minds you share die” which further taught Eragon the value of life even for the smallest of creatures when he would have thought nothing of it in the past.

Again, Paolini’s descriptive narratives brings his characters and their stories to life so much that you can see clearly how everything is, how the characters feel without sacrificing mystery, adventure and surprising twists that would leave his readers gasping and wanting for more.